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Cancer: It’s not like the movies

March 21, 2024 | Heather Shannon
a man in a well lit room wearing red sweater and grey pants has just received a cancer diagnosis looking concerned outside sitting next to his female doctor an african american woman with a white coat and stethoscope
A cancer diagnosis can come as a shock, but new treatments are changing the dire outlook typically presented in movies.

Movies have the power to make fictional stories seem so vivid they leave an impression and a feeling that lasts forever.

That’s especially true for films about someone diagnosed with cancer who ultimately meets a tragic end.

“Patients often come in with an image in their head based on the movies they’ve seen that had a cancer patient in it,” says UCI Health medical oncologist Dr. Arash Rezazadeh Kalebasty.

To better understand what leads to such misconceptions, Rezazadeh and his co-authors recently studied how cancer is depicted in 100 feature films involving cancer that were released in the last decade.

Misleading cancer portrayal

Rezazadeh and his co-authors found several problems with how cancer was characterized in the movies, including:

  • Cancer type. Only one-third of movies revealed the type of cancer, the tumor site or its subclassification. The most common cancers that were highlighted — brain cancer, for one — do not reflect their true frequency in the population.
  • Curability. Most cancers were portrayed as incurable, despite the prevalence of early detection and curative treatment for many cancers.
  • Palliative care. While hospice and palliative care are common aspects of an overall cancer treatment plan, fewer than one-tenth of patients in films were offered either of these beneficial services.

Although movies exist to entertain, they are formidable shapers of opinions and perceptions, Rezazadeh says.

Movies lag behind treatment innovations

Rezazadeh says that cancer in movies is portrayed as a story of life and death, designed for emotional intensity. As a result, the memories and associated feelings they evoke stick around.

This is especially true, he notes, with older patients who may have memories of films that are decades old and in no way reflective of cancer treatment and survivorship today. Cancer survivorship has been on the rise since the ‘90s, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“For patients who have an image of cancer based on a movie, they often think a cancer diagnosis is the end for them,” Rezazadeh says. “This is far from reality. We can treat patients so they can keep going and have a good quality of life.”

For example, he says, certain high-stage cancers are more treatable than ever. People who hear their disease is stage IV may assume the worst, but he notes: “Not all stage 4 cancer is the same.”

Making treatment decisions

On film, it’s common to see a patient receive their diagnosis and treatment in one fell swoop. In life, the conversation is more complex. Diagnosis is only the beginning.

Movies typically don’t represent the range of options and the many advances in cancer treatment today, he says, which includes more targeted therapies, immunotherapy and treatments specific to an individual’s particular cancer mutation.

“I see patients try to make treatment decisions for their cancer based on their experience with a movie, but movies are way behind in catching up with new therapies,” Rezazadeh says.

Today, he adds, there are many more considerations for patients, not least of which are an individual’s needs and goals.

Involving the patient

For UCI Health oncologists, treatment decisions are made as part of a wide-ranging conversation that takes into account the types of treatments available for the specific cancer, other comorbidities, a patient’s social support network, as well as their preferences and those of their family members.

“There are often not just one or two treatments available,” Rezazadeh says. “There may be several different approaches based on where they are in life and what their wishes are.”

Most important, he says, patients are involved every step of the way, and their preferences and comfort reign.

“We don’t dictate one regimen, as if it is the only option. There are ways of modifying the dose, the schedule and the agents for patients.”

He also points out that cancer treatment at UCI Health involves more than just a patient’s medical oncologist.

For example, when a patient is facing a prostate cancer diagnosis, a team of medical, surgical and radiation oncologists meet with the person to discuss how to approach it.

“In movies, you see one doctor telling you what is happening. Cancer treatment is often multidisciplinary. We work with other specialists to recommend a final treatment prescription for the patient.”

Healthcare professionals: starting the conversation

Oncologists and other healthcare professionals have a duty to confront any misconceptions head-on, as well.

“It should be proactively addressed,” Rezazadeh says. “This is a very common issue.”

Above all, he is honest and candid with his patients. First, he fosters trust by discussing his expertise, the many advances made in cancer treatment as well as the role of clinical trials to study the latest therapies.

“I tell them that this is all I do. I am up-to-date with all the possibilities for your treatment and that’s why I want you to listen to my recommendations.”

Next, he addresses misinformation that crops up, not only in movies, but also on social media and websites.

“I ask them to start with a fresh mind and to listen to the recommendations,” Rezazadeh says, along with urging them to contact him if they see or hear something that differs from what he has said.

“There is a lot of bad information out there in movies and on the web that confuses people about what they have.”

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